Swinging on the Vine: A Master Of Subtlety

Capture.PNGAs I get closer to that great turntable in the sky, I often sit in my Hunter Valley hideaway meditating on the meaning of life, its many mysteries and what it all means. Like today, with a glass of shiraz in my hand and the sound of Bobby Hackett and the Glen Osser Strings from the 1962 album Night Love in the background, I recall my early years with a nostalgic affection; memories which had lain dormant for longer than I care to remember brought to my attention by the power of music.

To put it simply, music has provided the soundtrack of my life: For many years when leaving for school as a boy the local radio station would close down at 8am soon after the ABC News with the same theme. It was not until my teenage years that I  found out it was Gershwin’s Lady Be Good played by the original Benny Goodman Trio with Teddy Wilson and Gene Krupa. Or at the local theatre listening to two scratchy 78s before the movie started. The records: Tommy Dorsey’s Song Of India and Artie Shaw’s Frenesi, the biggest selling instrumental of the fabled Swing Era. The siren song of jazz was entering my subconscious without me realising it.

And the excitement of buying my first jazz book while holidaying in Melbourne – the 1956 edition of Jazz Americana by Woody Woodward. Liberally illustrated with photos, one of the many was of bandleader Woody Herman with Dave Tough, his drummer in the legendary First Herd. At that time we were still dancing to The Golden Wedding, surprisingly a bigger hit for Herman in Australia than in the United States. In my youthful ignorance I thought Tough was the drummer on the original recording. He wasn’t. It was Frank Carlson who with pianist Tommy Lineham, guitarist Hy White and bassist Walt Yoder gave Herman a first-class rhythm section in the early 1940s.

Tough may not have been a showman like Krupa or as dynamic as Buddy Rich but he had no peer as a drummer in a big band – all 100lb of him – setting a cymbal shimmer behind every band he played in, especially three of the biggest “name” bands of the Swing Era, Goodman, Artie Shaw and Tommy Dorsey, giving them excitement and energy without putting himself first.

But he could never control his drinking – he was an alcoholic! (I gaze with affection at Big J lying in a drunken stupor beside a bowl of red wine but I digress …). Dorsey, who hired Tough in 1936, helping him to some sort of normality and curbing his erratic behaviour but in 1938 he joined Goodman which led to more heavy drinking.

When he was with Shaw’s Navy band, The Rangers, in the South Pacific in 1943, the clarinettist that knew Tough was an alcoholic who would always find things to drink, assigned a seaman to watch over him all day so he wouldn’t get drunk and fall off the bandstand. Tough, who along with Shaw and trumpeter Max Kaminsky was invalided out of the Navy in 1944 with battle fatigue, rejoined Herman with whom he had played briefly in 1942. His verve and brilliance proved the foundation of Herman’s great First Herd, one of the hardest swinging of all big bands. Many years later, Herman would recall that Tough “inspired a whole screaming big band with his subtleties and strong feeling for time” as on the Herman classics Apple Honey and The Good Earth.

Capture.PNGTough controlled his drinking with Herman until it forced him to leave the band in 1945. The following year he helped Eddie Condon open his night club in Greenwich Village; worked on 52nd Street with Charlie Ventura and Bill Harris; and in 1947 went to Chicago with his old friend Muggsy Spanier. But he was deteriorating physically and spent the final four months of his life in and out of a New York veterans’ hospital. Late on the afternoon of December 8, 1948 in the gathering dusk, he slipped on a street while heading home to the apartment he shared with his wife, hitting his head on a curb and fracturing his skull. He was drunk. He died in hospital the next day. He was 41. His wife did not find him for three days.

Dave Dexter, former associate editor of Down Beat magazine, called Tough “one of the three greatest drummers of all time. A sad guy, such a little sad guy.”

– Patrick D.Maguire


This article appeared in the August edition of Fine Music Magazine – you can subscribe to our monthly magazine and have it posted to your home or business or click the link here to read online.

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